Book review: Jefferson’s Daughters

I’ve just finished my second reading of Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison. I have to say it was a very enlightening and illuminating read.

Let’s face it, my ancestral cousin Thomas Jefferson’s life has been poured over in great detail in his lifetime and down the generations. As has his relationship with my other ancestral cousin, Sally Hemings. I can understand anyone thinking that everything that could be said about Thomas, Sally, and their children has already been said, many times over. Ms. Kerrison, however, has mined fresh territory. I’ve had a glimpse into my cousin’s lives and characters that I’ve never seen before.

Instead of a dry history book about Jefferson the Statesman, or about Jefferson the Founding Father and Revolutionary War patriot, Kerrison introduces us to  an engaging and lively history of Jefferson, the father. She has done a superb job getting beneath the superficial.

I won’t spoil anything by revealing too much. Let’s just say that where his daughters Martha and Maria a were concerned, Jefferson was a hard task master. The reader won’t come away with any knowledge about what Jefferson thought about his third daughter, Harriet. There is a simple reason for this: he didn’t write anything about Harriet. Or, if he did, his words about his third daughter were either lost over time, hidden from public view, or destroyed at his death by his white heirs. 

Truly, Harriet’s name only appears in Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he noted day-to-day things related to the lives of those he enslaved: food and blanket rations, births, deaths, the properties where his enslaved people resided, work productivity, the dates some of his enslaved people were sold (and who they were sold too), etc. It’s an odd remembrance of a daughter. However, it’s either all that Jefferson left us regarding his third surviving daughter – or all that anyone can publicly access.

The history Kerrison related regarding Sally and Harriet Hemings had me gripped.

Kerrison made the best use of scant contemporary written material about Sally and Harriet, the daughter she had with Jefferson. Sally left nothing that was written by herself. Or, if she has, those records have been lost or remain from public view by the Hemings family. Once Harriet crossed the colour line, adopting a white identity and a new name, she literally disappears into history. We know she “married well”, and lived in Washington D.C., where he family prospered. This we know from her brother Madison’s account of their family.

Where Kerrison has excelled is in her portrayal of Sally during her time in Paris, where her relationship with Jefferson begins, and where their first child was concieved. Kerrison’s account of Sally’s time in Paris mirrors what is already been related to me by family members years ago.

For those who question the origins of Sally and Thomas’s union really ought to read this book. All I’ll say is that Kerrison has portrayed a strong-willed, savvy, resolute, capable teenager who determined her own fate, as well as the fate of any children she would have by Jefferson. This too squared with what I’ve been told about her.

Kerrison realistically portrays the complexities of slavery in general, and the added layers of complexity of a union the likes of which Sally and Thomas shared. Kerrison does not pull her punches. I appreciated that.

I am often irritated when I see people making free with Sally’s history on Facebook and Twitter. I become annoyed because the usual statements that are made are conjecture based on assumptions without truly knowing what that history was. They’ve reduced her into a 2-dimension victim when her actual history is far more complex and nuanced than their 2-dimension portrayal allows. If  you’re sincerely interested in gaining a fuller understanding of her life while she was enslaved, buy this book.

While Sally and her children don’t feature as much as Martha and Maria Jefferson do – Kerrison has used the research material she accessed (which was monumental!) to great affect.

The other aspect of this book that impressed me was Kerrison’s detailed search for Harriet and her brother Beverley in Washington D.C. Beverley too crossed the colour line, taking a white identity and changing his name in the process. Kerrison’s genealogical research strategy for Harriet and Beverley was impressive. She threw everything at this task. I too know how tough a task this is. I have scoured DNA matches for myself as well as my father siblings – to no avail. While I easily found matches to Sally’s other children, as well as descendants of her other Colbert, Hemings, Brown, and Bell family – I haven’t found anything yet that links back to Harriet or Beverley.

This either suggests that Harriet and Beverley’s descendants might not have taken DNA tests (for a variety of reasons), or they haven’t tested on AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA. Or, if they have tested on those services, they have surnames that I simply haven’t associated with the Hemings and Jefferson families.

Kudos to Kerrison, however, for her attempt to find them…which she does a superb job in relaying and detailing. She had a sound research strategy that, in itself, is informative.

I definitely recommend this book. I can put it this way: if gripped me so thoroughly that I had to read it twice.

Available for purchase online, and offline in all major bookstores.

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